With a big couple of weeks on the cards, the Defensive Specialist thought he’d kick things off by dipping into the Deep in the Hole mailbag. The Defensive Specialist has already mentioned that pitching is often the key in playoff baseball and for an offensively challenged ballclub like the Blue Sox it’s going to be critical – especially as they square up against one of the scarier clubs in the competition, the big hitting Adelaide Bite. Today’s question centres on one of the Blue Sox real strengths, having an Ace (or Aces) leading the staff.
I’ve been reading your website for a while now and you’ve referred to guys like Welch and Oxpsring as aces on a number of occasions. As a father of a baseball mad son, I was interested to know what makes an ace and what my boy can do to build arm strength and develop other pitchers like sliders and curveballs.
Thanks for writing in. It’s timely that you raise the topic of aces, as those in Sydney will have the chance to see a couple this weekend. While the Defensive Specialist is generally a font of knowledge, it seemed appropriate to tap into your old pal’s extensive network to provide a more “pitcher centric” take on the above question. The Defensive Specialist dialled up the US Correspondent for his thoughts:
Solid question BT, let me break it into 2 parts:
1) What makes an ace?
Personally I don't think an Ace pitcher can be "made". Traditionally a team’s Ace is the best guy on the staff, notice I didn't necessarily say the guy with the best "stuff". I honestly believe that being a true Ace is just as much a mental mindset as it is having a set of physical skills. As coaches we identify guys who we believe fit the mould of staff Ace and try to make them into that pitcher. But an Ace in my opinion truly separates himself with his leadership skills and his ability to be mentally tougher than his opponent and competition. With that being said an "Ace" does need to possess a certain set of skills that will separate him from the rest of the pack - whether that is unbelievable command like Cliff Lee, or flat out dominating stuff like a Felix Hernandez (or a combination of both like Roy Halladay!). On the flip side there are plenty of big leaguers who have potentially better stuff but can't reach the elite status of being relied on as staff Ace. AJ Burnett doesn't have many peers in terms of how hard he throws and the movement he gets on his offfspeed stuff, but what separates him from being a 10-15 pitcher on one of the best teams in baseball compared with becoming the dominant ace that everyone would expect? You’d have to say what’s between his ears.
The same concept translates over to the amateur ranks. We've all played with, coached, or watched a game where you can immediately recognize the guy you want to have the ball when a game must be won. Staff Ace's possess the aura that immediately lets their teammates and opponents know that they are confident in their skills and are going to give their team the best chance to win that day. Whether that mentality is something that is taught or something that individual is born with is the big question.
As a coach I think the important thing is being able to put individuals who you identify as potential "Aces" in competitive/challenging situations that will show how they separate themselves from the rest of the pack both from a mental and competitive standpoint. These challenges/competitions can be conducted in a baseball setting but it’s also good to see how these individuals attitude and competitive nature translates to a non-baseball situation (i.e. in the weight room, during conditioning and even in school and jobs). Everyone has heard about Roy Halladay’s work ethic and desire to keep getting better – that’s part of his makeup. As a coach I think it’s our responsibility to identify the “Aces” out there and put them in positions where they can demonstrate the qualities that we want in the role. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can just appoint a kid as an Ace and then teach them how to be one.
2) How do you build arm strength and refine secondary stuff (curveballs, sliders etc)?
I think these two topics are directly correlated with each other. Building arm strength is one of the biggest components to having a successful pitching staff. Arm strength obviously has many benefits with the two primary reasons being 1) it allows pitchers to throw harder and for a longer duration of time and 2) it helps prevent injury. With that in mind, refining secondary pitches is all about getting repetitions and practicing that skill. In order to do that, your arm needs to be in the type of shape that allows you to actually use it on a regular basis.
You get better at baseball by playing it as often as possible - big revelation there (that’s why the big leagues play 162 games). This can be a double-edged sword for pitchers, as pitchers can only tax their arm so much. Unlike hitters and fielders who can take hundreds of repetitions a day (ground balls/batting practice) and then come back out and do it again the next day, pitchers can realistically only get on the mound 2-3 times a week for an extended amount of time, especially when you’re in-season and you’re preparing to be at your best every 5-7 days.
This is where the role of building arm strength is the core of a pitchers preparation. I certainly believe playing long toss is the number one component to building arm strength and maximizing the abilities your body has (whether that’s 85mph or 95mph). Many people have throwing programs that spell out how far and how many times you should throw the ball per session, but bottom line is throwing the ball as hard and far as you can with proper mechanics will help build the muscles that you actually use in throwing a baseball. People argue the specifics of long toss (is it okay to put a rainbow on it or do I need to keep it on a line?) and I honestly can't say which one is better. What I do know is that throwing the ball to max capacity will help condition your arm to do that in a game setting. As a starting pitcher you are training to throw the ball at max capacity presumably 90-120 times per game.
Some people will argue that weight training builds more arm strength but throwing a baseball requires specific muscles that are very individual to that specific skill. I think weight training supplements a good throwing program but if weight training is the sole indicator to throwing hard and building arm strength then why isn't Major League Baseball littered with 300 pound lifting champions? I am a huge believer in doing shoulder exercise routines (tubes, light weights, etc.), building a strong core through different exercises and being as functionally strong as possible, but would encourage young pitchers looking to make a jump to play as much long toss as possible in their training.
As far as refining secondary pitches I think the more time you can spend doing them the better, which is why arm strength is directly correlated to the topic. Your arm needs to be in shape so you can use it, and not be on the shelf for 3 days after you throw. I believe getting on the mound as much as possible is a big contributor to enhancing your pitches whether that’s a change, slider, split, curve, etc. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw a full 60 feet every time - having the catcher in front of the plate is beneficial too, as it really makes you get out front with your release point. If getting on the mound is not an option then flat ground (pitching just on a flat surface, 50-60 ft apart) is another way to work on these pitches. One of the biggest factors in making your offspeed pitches effective is ensuring it looks like your fastball (from a release point, arm slot, arm speed perspective) so practicing throwing your off speed with that in mind will help blend all those components together. Hopefully the end result will be that your mechanics look identical with the only difference being your grip – that creates real deception for hitters who cant pick up early what’s on the way to the plate..
Pitching like any other skill is something you get more confidence in the more you do it. Malcolm Gladwell theorises in his book "Outliers" that you can’t master a skill until you perform it for 10,000 hours. So being in peak physical condition (arm strength and health) will at least give you the opportunity to master your craft.